8 ways to beat writer’s block as a composer
Writer’s block. I’ve been there many a time. The sensation where my creativity feels drained and nothing is coming out. There are ways to prevent writer’s block, but sometimes it just hits you in the face. I feel dry. Every idea I write sounds bland and derivative, and the hours in the studio are full of frustration and going to waste. Writer’s block is a serious issue that can drain and frustrate you for a long time. While it often feels as if there’s nothing we can do about it, there’s always a way to help yourself get back to it and start writing again. Here’s a list of 8 tips that have helped me to beat writer’s block and might help you get back on track!
1. Get out of your studio
The best way to get over writer’s block is quite simple. Shut off your computer, go outside, get your limbs moving, and soak up some fresh air and vitamin D. We composers often restrain ourselves to hours of sitting in a closed room that we so sacredly call ‘The Studio.’ However, it can be mentally and physically draining to be in the same space and posture for too long. Changing your scenery and doing some physical activity by leaving the studio for a walk have significant positive effects on your mental and physical health and creative output.
2. Do something different
Fill yourself with other experiences that you love. This way, you snap out of the frustration and get your mind off it for a while. The annoyance built up in those endless hours of nothing is only digging you deeper into this rabbit hole. See a friend, play a board game, call your mom, or choose something else you love to do. By doing this, you create space. You allow yourself to think of something else for a while and fill yourself with joy and wonder. Feelings that have slowly been seeping out of you when you were stuck. And with this space, you create room for new ideas to flow. Fully immerse yourself in the experience and make it one that you find inspiring. Being intentional with these activities will help you feel recharged again.
3. Get inspired by others
Remember that piece you loved so much and got you into the kind of music you’re writing? Maybe one of the first film scores you owned or one of the Final Fantasy Soundtracks? Dive back into these pieces and let yourself be overwhelmed again by their beauty. What was it that made you fall in love with this piece? Try to get to the bottom of this and see if there are elements you could use to help you start. Analysis of the things you love is an excellent way of discovering how to use these elements in your music.
When I feel stuck or in a rut, I listen to Jacob Collier’s arrangement of All Night Long. There’s this joy that radiates from every note in this song that always reminds me of how much fun it is to make music and helps me get back on it.
4. Work on something else
If you’re working on a larger project and are stuck in one of the tracks, movements, or cues, it might be helpful to leave this one for what it is and start working on something new. Or maybe there’s this passion project you have lying around that you haven’t been able to work on for quite some time. Working on a new piece might help you gather new ideas for the one you’re stuck with or help you come back to the project with a fresh set of ears. I feel it always helps me to have a few tracks I can fall back on when I’m stuck on the larger project I’m working on.
5. Get to the bottom of it
Very often, there is a deeper mental issue that is causing your writer’s block. In a study in the 1970s, Yale researchers Michael Barrios and Jerome Stringer discovered that there are four leading causes of writer’s block.
- The writer was feeling pressure from the competition with other writers.
- The writer was excessively critical of their work.
- The writer lacked the internal motivation to write.
- The writer didn’t feel any sense of external motivation like praise or a reward.
Getting to the root of your problem can help you deal with it in a way that is not just for this one instance but can help you in the long run. Ask yourself if you are experiencing any of these causes. Identifying the specific problem makes it much easier to find a solution for it. For example, there are ways you can reward yourself after you’ve finished a project. (I usually take my wife to dinner.) Or look back at the things you’ve written before to see how much you’ve grown.
6. Get creative!
Bring out the sketchbooks, whiteboards, colored pens, and post-its. It’s time to get creative. Draw the tension curve of the piece you’re planning to write on a big sheet and start filling it in with more lines and scribbles representing musical gestures. Or try to describe the music with words like ‘Emotional,’ ‘Heavy Synthwave,’ or ‘I like the piccolo.’ Maybe lightly colored horizontal lines represent chord changes while darker colored dashes represent the imminent entrance of epic heroic percussion from ‘Damage 2’? Go nuts and see if you can approach writing and structuring your piece completely differently than you’re used to. You’ll surprise yourself.
In his book ‘Steal like an Artist,’ Austin Kleon states we need to have two different workstations.
- A digital one, where you can edit your ideas and send them out into the world.
- An analog one, where we can play and come up with ideas.
If you have the space, see if adding an analog station can help you get more creative when gathering new ideas. I’m currently in the process of creating a tiny recording corner in my slightly-less-tiny studio. I already look forward to playing around with the instruments in my house to come up with new ideas! Speaking of which…
7. Change up the instruments you work with
If you force yourself to write away from the piano, you come up with more inventive things. If you’re too good a piano player, as some composers are, the music may become flavorless and glib. And if you’re not a very good pianist, you’re limited to the same patterns.Stephen Sondheim
When playing the piano or any other instrument we’re highly comfortable with, we can get stuck in patterns we’ve been using countless times when we start a new piece. And when you’re feeling frustrated already, repeating those patterns can become even more frustrating. A way to gather new ideas is to pick up an instrument you’re unfamiliar with. Maybe your partner plays the cello and doesn’t mind you torturing that poor instrument for a specific sound you like. Or you have some small percussion lying around that can help you create some first primary rhythms and grooves. Breaking away from your comfort zone can help you generate ideas you’d never have thought of if you didn’t put away your comfort instrument. It’s time to start recording those ideas.
8. Just write
The last and best way to get yourself out of your block is just to write. Look back at some previous pieces you wrote. Are you happy with them? You wrote those! And maybe those pieces started in a way you didn’t like, but hey! Look at you; you made them WORK! Sure, you can compose something new. You just have to do it!
Start by writing two notes and sticking with them. Turn them into a bar, and force yourself to use this one bar as a start. It might be shite, but that’s the point. Don’t worry about making mistakes; get those notes in your DAW or on paper. Now you have a bar. What’s that? An idea for how you could follow this… Hmm… And if I repeat that and add a new ending… DONE. We have a theme. And if I start in A minor, and then move… You’re now in creative mode, not critic mode. And the ideas can start flowing from there.
Editing and fixing can come later, but there you go! You’ve started a new piece. I’m so proud of you. You got over the hump. Get those creative juices flowing, and before you know it, you’re knee-high in a new piece and ready to make this your latest masterpiece.
These tips have helped me in the past to beat writer’s block when I was in the middle of it. I hope they will help you in a similar situation to start working on a new track. I can’t wait to hear it!
Still, need some more inspiration? Maybe Creativity, Inc. would be a good read!